Nicetas – unaware of what Peter’s army had done to his mercenaries in Hungary — received them well and so had the locals. He opened the markets to the crusaders, trusting that they would purchase everything they needed and then move on. Unfortunately, that was not the case. As the crusaders set out east, a few German knights in the rearguard set fire to seven of the mills situated along the river after having quarreled with a townsman.
Once Nicetas learnt of this horrible deed, he sent his army after the crusaders. The Bulgarian troops attacked the rearguard of Peter’s army while Peter the Hermit journeyed on about a mile ahead. He didn’t know what was happening until one of his followers — probably one of his knights — raced up to him and alerted him of the attack. Peter turned his donkey around at once and headed back to Nish where he attempted negotiation with Nicetas.
Whether Peter begged for mercy or aggravated Nicetas, we will never know. Regardless, Nicetas was so enraged by what Peter’s men had done that he attacked them anyway. In the heat of the skirmish, thousands of crusaders were massacred; most of their supplies were plundered by the Bulgarians, including Peter’s treasure chest, full of silver and gold. Many crusaders who did survive were captured and held in captivity for the rest of their lives. A few lucky thousand escaped and hid in the mountains, including Rainald of Breis, Walter of Breteuil, and Peter himself.
Once Nicetas returned with his army back to Nish, Peter the Hermit and what remained of his following, continued on their journey. The fugitives who had survived Nicetas’s wrath emerged from their hiding places and rejoined Peter until his following totaled 7,000.
When they reached Sofia in July, they met with the envoys that had been sent from Constantinople — the ones Nicetas had requested to accompany the crusaders. From there, the pilgrims’ journey went much smoother and more peaceful; their Byzantine escorts treated them kindly and the locals in Philippopolis gave them money, food, horses, and mules.
Once they reached Constantinople, the Emperor Alexius invited Peter to court, but made sure the rest of the crusading army was camped outside the walls of the great city. He gave Peter gifts and advised him to stay in Constantinople and wait for the main crusading armies to arrive.
In the meantime, few of the pilgrims who camped outside the walls, set fire to some buildings and pillaged food and other supplies from the locals. Some pilgrims even stripped lead from church buildings.
Soon enough, news of the trouble those rabble-rousing pilgrims caused found its way into the imperial court. Annoyed and worried that this disorder would escalate, Alexius had the pilgrims ferried across the Bosporus River in early August, nearly one month after they arrived in Constantinople. Against his advice, Peter joined his followers.
Once they set foot on the other side of the Boshporus, the motley crew marched with Peter the Hermit south to Nicomedia, an abandoned Byzantine camp, plundering and pillaging every village in their path.
Even greater trouble broke out once the rabble-rousing crusaders reached Nicomedia. This time, conflict broke out between the Germans, Italians, and the French. Peter lost a significant amount of control over his followers after the Italians and Germans broke away from his command and elected the Italian lord, Rainald, as their leader in his place. Then, the French troops elected Geoffrey Burel as their commander.
The French departed from the main army and marched westward along the Gulf of Nicomedia until they came to Civetot, a fortified camp placed strategically on fertile land near the Gulf of Nicomedia. They were supposed to wait there for the rest of the army and for supplies from Constantinople, but they were impatient. They marched into Turkish territory, pillaging and killing Greek Christians in the worst ways imaginable. “They dismembered some of the babies; others they put on spits and roasted over a fire; those of advanced years, they subjected to every form of torture,” Anna Comnena wrote about forty years after she encountered the crusaders.
The French grew wealthy off their booty, which aroused great jealously amongst the Germans and Italians. Sometime at the end of September, Rainald led a force of about six thousand men –including some priests and bishops — deeper into the heart of Turkish held territory. These men had well perfected the art of plunder and pillage, but they failed to read their enemy; the Turks.
Rainald and his force took the castle of Xerigordon, a castle that was well stalked with provisions and located high on a hill, directly above a small stream. From there, they planned on how they were going to raid the surrounding countryside.
News of the crusaders’ brutal exploitation reached the Seljuk Sultan, Kilij Arslan, probably from a Turkish spy who witnessed their acts of pillage and murder from a safe distance. Kilij Arslan immediately sent an army to take back the castle of Xerigordon. His troops quickly surrounded the castle, blocking off water supplies and entrapping the crusaders.
“Soon the besieged grew desperate from thirst. They tried to suck moisture from the earth; they cut the veins of their horses and donkeys to drink their blood; they even drank each other’s urine,” Steven Runciman wrote.
After eight days of agonizing suffering and realizing he could not defeat this Turkish army, Rainald surrendered. Many of his men were slaughtered and those who were spared were taken into captivity, including Rainald himself. After his swift defeat, “he (Kilij Arslan) instructed two energetic men to go to Peter’s camp and announce that the forces had captured Nicaea and were dividing up the spoil from the city,” Anna Comnena wrote.
Upon hearing this news, Peter’s followers prepared at once to march on Nicaea. They were so determined to have their share in the booty that they forgot all matters of discipline and training. As they underwent preparations for the march, Peter hastened back to Constantinople and appealed to Alexius for more help. Peter also hoped that Alexius would somehow restore his control over his followers, but it was too late for that.
Walter Sans Avoir, one of the few knights who remained tightly loyal to Peter, advised the troops to wait for Peter’s arrival, but they ignored him. At the end of October 1096, the entire crusading army marched out of Civetot, leaving behind the elderly, women, and children.
The Turks were the type of warriors to be feared and respected; they were fearless, valiant, and clever in battle. They were probably most renowned for their skill as bowmen. They used light, composite bows, designed to release arrows at amazing speeds. They shot arrows from foot, but also while riding on top their horses. Their armor, unlike that of the Europeans, was made of a lighter material, yet protective, giving them the ability to move swiftly. That’s likely one reason why the Turks were able to fire their arrows while charging the enemy on horseback.
The Turks also used hills and woodlands to their advantage; they hid and waited ever so silently until the enemy was within their midst and then…
The road between Civetot and Nicaea ran through a narrow, thickly wooded valley. On Kilij Arslan’s instructions, the Turkish army hid in those woods and waited.
The crusaders, thinking that the Turkish army had been roundly defeated at Nicaea, marched on, not suspecting anything until, out of nowhere, a hail of arrows whished through the air and fell upon them, wounding and killing knights and horses.
The Turks emerged from their hiding spots and descended upon the crusaders. The knights fought hard and bravely, but a great many of them were slaughtered. Those who did survive fled back to Civetot, but they were hotly pursued by the Turks. When the non combatants saw their knights racing into camp, their eyes ablaze with terror, they attempted escape, but were massacred mercilessly. Young children — only those whom the Turks considered as physically appealing — were taken as slaves. The few people who managed to escape the wrath of the Turks fled back to Constantinople by way of sea and told Peter and the emperor the horrid news.
No evidence had been recorded of Peter’s reaction to the demise of his followers; his crusade. However, one thing was for sure: The massacre at Civetot marked a tragic end to the People’s Crusade.
Did Peter’s followers deserve to meet such a cruel fate? Given all the trouble they caused on their journey to Constantinople; all the food, money, and pack animals they stole from benevolent townspeople; all of the innocent men, women, and children they ruthlessly murdered; yes, Peter’s followers deserved what came to them. Moreover, the atrocities they committed caused several Europeans to question the validity of the decree, “God wills it,” that was made by their Pope in Clermont. Yet, crusading enthusiasm throughout Western Europe was so strong, nothing quenched it.
Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of The War For The Holy Land. New York; Ecco, 2011.
Krey, August C. The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eye-Witnesss and Participants. Princeton; Princeton University Press, 1921
Runciman, Steven. A History of the Crusades: The First Crusade. Vol.1. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1951.
Stark, Rita M. Knights of the Cross: The Epic of the Crusades. Bloomington; iUniverse, 2008.